A Study in Crime Dramas

I want to start off this post by saying True Detective is one of the best shows of all time. If you have not watched it yet, I highly recommend it. To be fair it is also one of the dirtiest and grittiest shows on television currently. There are many times when I feel like I need to shower and brush my teeth after an episode, and yet I still have to know what happens in the next episode. I could probably write several paragraphs just raving about everything there is to like about the show, but instead I want to focus on what makes True Detective better than most crime dramas or police procedurals on television right now. This is the point in which I will issue the “SPOILERS” warning, just in case I write too much about events that have happened to far.

True Detective is very much a crime drama. Before I wrote this post, I wasn’t too sure on what set a crime drama and a police procedural apart. Some quick research (on wikipedia to cite sources) says that a police procedural will often show the activities or reveal the perpetrator throughout the episode while a crime drama will often only reveal who the perpetrator is during the climax of the story. Based on the definition alone, True Detective would fall strictly into the crime drama category. However, the murderer in season 1 is revealed at the beginning of the third act. For a brief amount of time we see both the murderer living his horrible day to day life, and the detectives getting closer and closer to the point of catching him. Apart from the supposed perpetrator reveal, everything else about true detective follows a typical police procedural to vary degrees. The audience is introduced to the detectives, some kind of crime happens, the detectives solve the crime and sprinkled through out are interrogations of clearly shady individuals, they follow leads in which the police or detectives think they have the right guy, or they miss the actual criminal because of a mistake. I’d argue that crime dramas and police procedurals are the easiest television to make because they have such a concrete formula. Yes, even True Detective falls into this formula.

There are some unique things that show creators can take to make his or her version of the crime drama or police procedural stick out among the seemingly endless amount of other crime dramas or police procedurals. One of the detectives is psychic. The main detective character isn’t really a detective, he’s a freelancer and “hyper” intelligent. He’s outside the law. She’s a medical practitioner. This one is a comedy. This one is serious. This one takes place in space. This one is in every major city in the world. He’s going to be batman one day. The list goes on. All of these ideas are just gimmicks. Maybe I just have higher standards than the average joe, but these gimmicks are not enough to keep my attention. Even True Detective had a gimmick for its first season, and season 2 is following suit.

How is it possible for True Detective to be one of the best shows on television if it follows the same formula as many of the other shows on air and it falls into the gimmick trap? True Detective is first and foremost a serial. Most crime dramas on television today claim to be serials, but I do not think they should be categorized by that. Most crime dramas, while maintaining a serial status are still very much episodic in nature. They suffer from what I call “freak of the week” syndrome. Every episode picks up where last weeks cliff hanger left off, but then that plot is suddenly put on the back burner because something has happened and a new crime takes precedence. Instead of having a steady plot that follows from one episode to the next we are constantly being interrupted by some idiot who thinks he can rob a bank or another criminal kidnapping young boys and girls. Then we have to wait until the last five to seven minutes of the episode to get any kind of continuation of the lose plot threat that connects each episode. Sure, there might be a few nuggets of plot sprinkled throughout the episode, but those nuggets are only included to remind the audience that the plot still exists. Instead of truly being a serial, many shows are a hybrid episodic-serial. True Detective is unique in that each season is a unique story focusing on one crime. This eliminates many of the distractions that could come from having a new crime introduced every week.

There’s a specific scene that comes up in almost every crime drama and police procedural that is deeply integrated into the formula of those shows. I haven’t decided which name I like for the scene better the “buddy cop” scene or the “cop car” scene. Its the scene in every crime drama or police procedural where the two main characters are sitting side by side in the car just talking. It is this scene that makes or breaks a crime drama or police procedural because it is this scene where the most is revealed about the characters. The audience gets to peer into the souls of these individuals and learn why they say and act the way they do. Some of the most memorable moments from True Detective season 1 take place when Rust is talking with Marty in the car driving to and from different crime scenes and leads. We learn that Rust is a nihilist and Marty wants to be the all around outward focused “good” cop. Studies have shown that people are more likely to open up when they are in the car because both parties are facing forward and eye contact is virtually non-existent between the two parties. Something about looking someone in the eye and opening up is frightening to people. Perhaps its because the eyes are considered the window of the soul. This past week on True Detective season 2, “Night Finds You” two of the characters have some small conversation in the car, and yet somehow the few words spoken reveal the most about the two characters. These conversations don’t necessarily have to take place in the car. Some times they take place in a bar. Sometimes in the bed room after some poor decisions have been made. The connection between all these scenes is the action taking place between both characters. There still isn’t much eye contact being made because the characters are playing pool or focused on getting dress, etc. The characters are able to open up more. At the beginning of “Night Finds You,” two characters are laying in bed staring up at two water stains on the ceiling, and suddenly a flood of information is revealed about one of the characters thoughts and emotions on a day to day basis. We learn part of what makes him who he is.

The thing that makes True Detective a truly great show, are not the moments that happen at the crime scene or even the events that take place on the streets it’s what happens in the car. Next time you watch NCIS or Ciminal Minds or any crime drama or police procedural, watch what’s taking place when the characters reveal the most information about themselves. True Detective takes crime drama characterization to the next levelly losing the obstructive plots and focusing on the characters. Instead of focusing on an episodic story every week and losing characterization, it focuses on the characters and makes the plot secondary.

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